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Frame of Reference

The Lee Hansley Gallery revives a local master influenced by cubism

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Joe Cox was born in Indianapolis in 1915 and began his career as an artist at the age of 15, when he designed a magazine advertisement. At the tender age of 24, his paintings were displayed at the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco. During his lifetime he taught at the Universities of Iowa, Florida and Tennessee, finally ending up in Raleigh at the North Carolina State University School of Design, where he remained on the faculty from 1954 until his retirement in 1980. He won museum purchase awards from the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Va., and the Mint Museum of Art. He won First Prize at the Atlanta Arts Festival in 1955, and held numerous one-man shows, from galleries on Madison Avenue to those in Raleigh.

Knowing these accomplishments, I was surprised, when working on a project at NCSU two years ago, to find that a Cox painting had been cast away in a storage space above the Gallery of Art and Design on NCSU's campus (though the painting has since been hung in an office there). In a window facing Hillsborough Street at D.H. Hill Library, Cox installed one of a series of color and light murals, this one 30 feet long, built and electronically timed to cast the shadows of passersby in 21 different colors. This mural has been all but neglected by the university: The timed lighting has not been maintained as Cox intended, and the hallway in which the installation rests is now obstructed by unused rolling book carts. So it's refreshing to see the work of this once prominent Raleigh artist in a new exhibition.

The current exhibition of works by Joe Cox at Raleigh's Lee Hansley Gallery contains paintings and drawings dating from the artist's graduate school days at the University of Iowa through the beginnings of his work with abstract spatial representation in the late 1960s. This time period spans a good portion of his career and evidences the evolution of his art.

"Room Interior" (1948), reflects the influence of cubism. Cox himself attested to the impossibility of modern painters working without being influenced by Picasso. Dark in color, even with a swatch of low intensity orange drawing attention to the center of the piece, this painting recalls Georges Braque's "Still Life: banjo"--but sans banjo, plus deer antlers.

"Blue/Orange Abstraction" foreshadows the direction Cox would take with his painting for most of the rest of his life. It's a fine example of how he began to stretch the possibilities of two dimensional space. Painted with acrylics on unprimed canvas with a wash of translucent color, the artist here employs a spattering technique he developed by converting a vacuum cleaner to reverse its operation so that it blew coarse drops of paint. The four-sided images seem to fight to break their frame of reference. As the eye follows them, expected edges fade into new, open planes at different levels on the canvas. The painting lures the viewer into it by revealing seemingly infinite space, directly contradicting the frame in which the work is held.

Many of the show's best pieces fall into the era between 1963 and 1969. These works are defined by bold, black lines, and depict subjects such as a bridge, or one of Cox's favorites, dockside in Oriental, N.C. All of the drawings on display were made during this time period. In these works, Cox has added perspective to his spatial relationships. The sharp lines extend from the edges of these works to collaborate in an apocalyptic conjunction. The result is striking images that redefine reality.

Cox once wrote, "The existing world as I perceive it to form my own reality is a point of departure, a frame of reference, for creating a new reality--the painting. ... How can a painter compete with nature? Instead, I try to take those images that I have preserved in my memory and reinterpret them." When viewing Joe Cox's work, one should expect to be challenged before being moved. His reinterpretations are not as emotionally expressive as they are the result of a cavernous intellect. This is an important show for any art aficionado, and particularly rewarding for those interested in the work of local painters. EndBlock

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